This was the incredible survival story of 77 year old John Wildey. A kindly, British sort of Grandad, with coffee coloured teeth, watery eyes that sparkled with jokes gone by and nerves of absolute TITANIUM.
It all started fairly nicely for John that evening. He’d decided to go for a jolly day out at Butlins and instead of driving he thought, ‘why not take the plane?’ Wow. Most Grandads would suggest the bus, or a day watching the snooker. But Butlins? Just for the day? And in a plane? I loved John already.
Along he chugged in his Cessna, his trusty pilot at the wheel, when (as always in a Channel 4 documentary) disaster struck. The pilot said, ‘I feel a bit sick’. John was instantly worried about getting sick on his trousers and quite rightly so – who wants sick on their Butlins trousers? Soon after, the pilot started breathing heavily, threw his head back and died. (Poor chap. RIP). John reached over and felt the pilot’s forehead. It was cold and clammy. That can’t be a good feeling. We, the viewers, did not feel good.
Finding yourself suddenly alone with a corpse, in an aeroplane that you don’t know how to fly, is the point when most people would do the decent thing and freak out massively, before sending some heartbreaking goodbye-texts from the cockpit, looking for a minibar, and sobbing at the controls until the inevitable happened. Fortunately, John who had worked as a desk clerk in the RAF and, we’re told, ‘knew some flying terminology’, was made of stronger stuff. Don’t knock it. I’ve spent my entire life basically muddling through on zero knowledge and a bit of terminology.
He radioed down to deliver the bad news to air traffic control, ‘Mayday, I’m not a pilot’. The words every controller hopes never to hear. ‘An innocent day had turned into a full blown emergency’, said the narrator. We’ve all been there.
Then began a united effort by Humberside Airport, RAF Search and Rescue and a Flight Instructor named Roy, to help John land his hopeless little plane, in the dark, without being able to see, as he couldn’t work out how to put his dashboard lights on. Oh John again, we’ve all been there.
The team suggested John aim for ‘Runway 26’ which was a small, unlit runway. Let me just pause for a moment and let that terrible advice sink in. The tenuous reason presented for this awful, AWFUL idea was that the wind would be ‘ahead’ and therefore, it would be safer. However, I suspect the real reason was that Humberside Airport didn’t want a plane to crash on its main, lit and international runway and then have to spend the evening delaying flights while poor John was scraped off the tarmac. Shame on you, Humberside Airport.
Anyway, John valiantly flew his aircraft at the dark, little runway-of-no-return, before bailing out and diverting to the more sensible and real runway. I’d imagine air traffic control went, ‘oh for God’s sake OK, let him do it’, before muttering angrily to themselves, ‘this is going to be a long night’.
It was nerve-racking viewing, but to be fair, we knew he got down safely because we knew the programme title. After much tension, the realisation that John had to fly over a main road and an oil refinery to get to the runway, which, had he crashed onto Hull, could have caused massive improvements (sorry DAMAGE, massive damage), John amazingly pootled down and landed the plane. What an absolute LEDGE.
He said it must have been his lucky week as he went on to win £6.70 on the lottery. What a testament to keeping your cool.
Catch up on Mayday: The Passenger Who Landed a Plane on 40D or tonight on 4seven from 9pm
First published by TVGuide.co.uk